When the Transition Movement & the Community Rights Movement Start Collaborating, Watch Out!

Paul Cienfuegos presented this original speech to the Transition PDX group in Portland, Oregon, on January 18, 2012. Please share it widely with other Transition groups.

Thank you so much for inviting me to share my thoughts with you this evening! I have been excited about the Transition movement ever since it first launched, but have watched it from the sidelines, as I focused my energies instead on the corporate rule crisis. I think it would be accurate to say that the sustainability crisis that we face on Mother Earth, or more accurately, the crisis of the lack of sustainability in modern society, is perhaps the most urgent of all our societal crises. And what I see the international transition movement doing brings me great excitement and hope.

For years now, I’ve had the notion that the Transition movement and the movement to end corporate rule should be working hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. But interestingly, they’re not, at least not yet. I’m really troubled that our two movements are not yet working together, and my gut instinct is that if we continue to not work together, both of our movements will ultimately fail.

In this country, our activism manifests as thousands and thousands of tiny under-funded under-staffed single-issue groupings, each fighting against one specific societal problem. To some degree, the Transition movement avoids this single-issue activism, which is great! It sees itself instead as a more cosmic social movement that is fixing the culture at the local level – building healthy local sustainability structures – house by house, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community. Clearly, there’s something very powerful here as a model for organizing, or it wouldn’t be spreading as fast as it is. I applaud you for your work. It’s very exciting to watch it unfold.

But I also have some concerns about the Transition movement, which is part of why I’m excited to be speaking to you tonight. My main concern is that nowhere in the Transition strategy do I see any real focus on the critical issue of governance. In other words, where in the Transition strategy do we talk about governing ourselves at the local level? We are We The People. There is no legal power in this nation greater than US!

I’d like to read to you the first few sentences of the Oregon State Constitution, which is the highest law of the land in the state of Oregon:

Article 1 – Bill of Rights

Section 1. NATURAL RIGHTS INHERENT IN PEOPLE.

We declare…. that all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; and they have at all times a right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.

Let me read that to you again!

Article 1 – Bill of Rights

Section 1. NATURAL RIGHTS INHERENT IN PEOPLE. 

We declare…. that all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; and they have at all times a right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.

Imagine if We the People of this state and every state started to take that language to heart, and to insist that all power really is inherent in the people!

So tonight, I want to talk to you about the possibility that the Transition movement is ignoring its perhaps greatest potential impact on our society —perceiving itself as a movement of the majority, imagining itself as a movement of We The People – a self-governing people – a people who are rising up together to take our power back as citizens of this local place, of this state, of this bioregion, of this country.

I am urging you to stretch your imaginations with me this evening because as you and I both already know, we are in great danger here on Mother Earth. And my question to you tonight is this: At the current rate at which the Transition movement is creating more sustainable structures for living in our local places, will we become a truly sustainable society in time?

When climate scientists are close to unanimous in their alarming reports telling us that we have to cut our greenhouse gases by 90% in less than a decade if we are going to save our global climate from massive catastrophe to all living creatures, are we moving forward fast enough to be meeting these urgent goals? No, we are not!

When peak oil analysts warn us that we are already on the verge of losing sufficient fuel capacity to run our industrial society without periodic interruptions, and that within a very short amount of time the globalized nature of our world will no longer be something we can take for granted, are we moving forward fast enough to be responding to this urgent situation? No, we are not!

Our political governance systems are almost entirely unresponsive to We The People. You know this. I know this. We now live in a society where giant corporations rule. Their executives run our federal agencies. Their money elects our politicians. Their media institutions frame our news and analysis, and educate us about the issues of the day.

In response, more and more of us abandon any involvement in government, as our collective sense of hopelessness and powerlessness grows and grows. And the vacuum we leave behind is filled with even more corporate intrusion into our society’s governmental structures.

I’ve asked many local Transition movement leaders over the past few years why your movement has so little involvement with making law, with governance issues. And the answer I get consistently is, “I don’t know why”.

I’ve also looked at various Transition books, such as the newly published Transition Companion, by Rob Hopkins, and once again, there is almost nothing in this substantial 320-page book about how to institute sustainability goals into local law, or about how to exercise our inherent right of self-governance to move a bold sustainability agenda forward politically.

In just two places in the book can you find anything about sustainability goals and governance. There is a section about working with your local elected council, including a do’s and don’t’s list that’s mostly about how not to alienate them so that they will respect your local efforts. And there’s a section about “peak oil resolutions” (which are of course non-binding on government) and why it’s a good idea to get one passed in your local council, but nothing about peak oil laws. This section of the book includes the following words:

“Local and regional authorities aren’t yet planning strategically for peak oil, and it is not a concern reflected in their policymaking.”

Portland’s local elected officials may be more aware of the peak oil issue than most local governments, and Portland’s local government bodies may be working on policy guidelines regarding peak oil, but no local government yet anywhere in this country, to my knowledge, is enacting any new laws which create enforceable timelines that boldly move us from our profoundly unsustainable energy use to a whole new way of living.

Again, you and I both know that the changes we need to make are not happening fast enough. That we need fundamental and profound changes in the way we transport ourselves, the way we heat and cool our buildings, the way we grow our food, the way we manufacture and transport the stuff we buy,…..not to mention the way we produce energy in the first place!

Imagine with me for a moment the people of this place taking themselves seriously enough as We The People, as The Majority in a majority-rule society, taking ourselves seriously enough to decide to write a local Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) that becomes enforceable law. You may think I’m crazy, or at least utterly unrealistic, but believe it or not, for the past decade, communities across the United States have been passing one local law after another that exercises and enshrines our inherent right of local self-governance. In more than 150 communities in six east coast states, people have been passing rights-based laws that define the kind of community they want to live in.

The movement started in the tiny conservative rural farming community of Wells Township, Pennsylvania, where local folks passed the “Anti-Corporate Farming Ordinance,” which banned non-family owned corporations from engaging in farming or owning farmland, and which also stripped corporations of their constitutional so-called “rights.” The residents of Wells Township wanted to protect their family farm economy, and they had grown sick and tired of state government telling them that all they could do was to regulate farm factories in their community, not ban them. So they stepped outside of existing regulatory and zoning law, which is normally what local communities are told is their only option. They exercised their inherent right of local self-governance and banned farm factories.

Fast forward a few years, and dozens of Pennsylvania farming communities passed identical laws. Fast forward another few years, and communities in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and New Hampshire started passing other rights-based laws, that banned corporate mining, corporate groundwater pumping for bottling, and corporate dumping of urban sewage sludge on farmland.

Just a few years ago, this fast growing movement of communities had an ah-hah moment! They began to realize that all of the local ordinances they were passing were merely against various harmful corporate activities. They started to ask themselves, if we are indeed a self-governing people, what is it that we want?! Not just what we don’t want. But what do we want? What is our vision for our community’s future?

At this point, the ordinances went through a subtle but profound change. For example, in November 2010, the city council of Pittsburgh passed a ban on corporate fracking, which immediately put a halt to hundreds of lease agreements that were in the process of being negotiated with private homeowners within the city of Pittsburgh.

The new ordinance, which was passed 9-0 by the city council, includes a section titled “Right to Water.” It reads,

“All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in Pittsburgh possess a fundamental and inalienable right to sustainably access, use, consume, and preserve water drawn from natural water cycles that provide water necessary to sustain life within the City.” 

The city council of Pittsburgh banned fracking within the city because it violated the residents’ “right to water”. The ordinance went on to quote from the “Declaration of Independence”:

“governments are instituted to secure the rights of people”

and it quoted from the Pennsylvania Constitution, which recognizes that

“all power is inherent in the people.”

Let me read to you Section 4.3 of the ordinance, titled “Right to Self-Government”:

“All residents of Pittsburgh possess the fundamental and inalienable right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people, that all free governments are founded on the people’s authority and consent, and that corporate entities and their directors and managers shall not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law which make community majorities subordinate to them.”

Much closer to home, in Bellingham, WA, a rights-based campaign by the name of Coal Free Bellingham is set to launch this month, on January 26, 2012. The good people of Bellingham have drafted a “Right to Climate” ordinance, which, if passed by the voters in November 2012, would ban coal trains from passing through Bellingham. The people of Bellingham have decided that they can no longer wait for state or federal governments to protect them from the climate destabilization which has already begun, so they have chosen to stand up as self-governing people and say “Not here!”

Just as the Pennsylvania farmers found that they had to pass laws which asserted their rights and violated the so-called “rights” of animal factory corporations, so the people of Bellingham are asserting their right to a healthy climate the only way they know how – by passing a local law that violates the so-called constitutional “rights” of coal-hauling corporations.

Let’s return to the work of the Transition movement.

Is it such a stretch to imagine the Transition movement beginning to take itself seriously enough this next year to start thinking about revving up the speed in which your sustainability initiatives are gaining traction? Is it such a stretch to envision a five-year or a ten-year or a twenty-year Energy Descent Action Plan with teeth? Are we a self-governing people or are we not? Do we have the authority as local residents to define our community’s future, or do we not? Are we mere activists and neighborhood residents, or are we… We The People – with inherent rights to govern ourselves?

A few years ago, I led a workshop at the Village Building Convergence here in Portland. About thirty of us tried to take ourselves seriously enough to really truly envision what would need to be included in a ten-year plan to fundamentally transform Portland’s transportation infrastructure. We tried to imagine a city-wide transportation system that used just 10% of the carbon-based fuel we currently use (which is again what climate scientists tell us we have to achieve in less than a decade!).  We asked ourselves some wild questions, such as….

Would there still be any cars on the road, and if so, for what use? Would they still be privately owned? How would public transit have to change so that everyone felt that it served their needs? Would there be many more buses, or would we have to rethink how public transit reaches people? Would we have to replace many of our traffic lanes with walking and bicycling paths? How would disabled people get around? Would we still be able to live far from where we work? What role would neighborhoods play in this profound transformation?

In my workshop, I asked participants to try to take themselves seriously, as if we really were going to have to make these massive changes in a short amount of time. Because in reality, we are going to have to make these massive changes in a short amount of time!!! And the question I want to ask each of you is this: How are we going to do this within the time frame that we’ve got, according to climate scientists and peak oil analysts? Are we really wanting to continue to rely on magical thinking? That somehow it’ll all work out? That somehow our so-called leaders will come to the rescue? Or can we imagine ourselves as leaders? Can we imagine ourselves as The Deciders? Can we imagine ourselves as the ones who write the local ordinances that create enforceable timelines that generate the massive social transformations that must take place?

150 communities in six east coast states have stepped outside of local regulatory and zoning laws, and have passed historically groundbreaking ordinances that define what We The People want, and which strip corporations of their so-called constitutional “rights.”

I moved to Portland from Humboldt County, California in April 2011. I moved in order to teach and organize full-time – to help build a strong Community Rights based movement in Oregon and across the Pacific Northwest. I would be delighted to work with your local Transition group or ANY Transition group anywhere in the United States. We are living in what has been called “a long emergency.” I can see no better use of my time here than to assist groups like yours in passing local ordinances that define the incremental steps necessary to become a truly sustainable Portland, with an enforceable timeline that gets us there. The biggest barrier in achieving this very bold and gutsy vision is taking ourselves seriously. Not merely as creative activists but as We the People, as a self-governing people. Not waiting for our local elected officials to act boldly, because they really can’t. Their hands are simply too tied by existing state and federal laws which privilege the so-called “rights” of corporations over the rights of the people.

To transition from the status quo situation today to a 90% cut in greenhouse gases within a decade is going to require wrenching changes. It’s going to require massive culture shift, massive community participation, massive bottom-up organizing, massive shifts from seeing ourselves as mostly private people to seeing ourselves as mostly public citizens. Our elected leaders cannot possibly institute these changes for us, they have to come from us, from the grassroots, from the neighborhoods.

Many U.S. communities are just beginning to ask themselves hard questions about how sustainable they really are. But not Portland! Portland is a national leader in paying attention to sustainability.

Yet even Portland residents and government are barely paying attention to how vast are the changes that we are going to have to institute city-wide to respond adequately to climate destabilization and peak oil. The Columbia River Crossing is just one of many examples. The fact that this absolutely insane project is even still moving forward at all is an indication as to how entrenched is our societal thinking about economic growth as a given. Ten years from now, if we’ve cut our fossil fuel use by 90%, will we need a 12-lane bridge across the Columbia River? Of course not!

So how do we shift from local governments passing Peak Oil resolutions while approving funds for new 12-lane bridges, to local governments passing legally binding ordinances that respond boldly to Peak Oil realities, with enforceable timelines? The only way that we get there is for citizens like us to start dreaming much much much bigger dreams. We need a scale of neighborhood-based organizing and educating that few of us have ever witnessed. We need to start seeing ourselves as The Deciders. We need to get ourselves psyched up to start thinking and acting as a self-governing people.

Imagine if the Transition Portland group started a big visioning process in 2012 that transformed your Energy Descent Action Plan into a rights-based local ordinance with a ten-year enforceable timeline. Imagine if every neighborhood in the city held a series of public forums to discuss this bold vision. Imagine if, by the end of this year, 2012, representatives from every neighborhood were meeting together to finalize the legal language of the ordinance, and it was then filed with the city. Imagine if neighborhoods started mobilizing themselves in January of 2013 to collect enough signatures to put it on the city ballot in November 2013. Imagine!

Do you think my vision is unrealistic? And if you think it is, ask yourself, “How else are we going to get where we need to go in the short amount of time we have left, to cut our greenhouse gases by 90% in the next decade?

In the introduction to Rob Hopkins’ new book, he says the following:

What we are convinced of is this:

  • If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late.
  • If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little.
  • But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.

I think he’s almost got it right, but not quite! What he forgets is that we don’t have to “wait for the governments”, because we have the inherent right, in this city and in this state, to govern ourselves, to write and pass our own laws, via the ballot box. If we act as communities, not just informally as voluntary associations as he’s implying, but as We The People of this place, exercising our collective authority to govern ourselves, then as Rob states, “it might just be enough, just in time.”

We all hope he’s right. The future of our nation depends on it. The long-term stability of the life support systems of our Mother Earth depend on it.

I’m working with increasing numbers of people across Oregon and beyond to build an unstoppable Community Rights movement. I am convinced that the Transition movement could become a major player in our movement, helping to pass laws that guarantee the right to renewable energy for all, the right to a healthy climate, the right to a locally-based economy, and the right to a sustainable food system. In fact, our movement has already drafted some of these ordinances, and all that’s needed for them to move forward is a community which dares to think this boldly.

I am leading workshops and giving talks all over the Pacific Northwest on how to pass a Community Rights ordinance in your town. My entire Community Rights archive can be viewed at CommunityRights.US, where you can sign up for my blog, view my schedule of upcoming events, and listen to my previous talks and interviews. I look forward to working with you in the future. Thank you very much.

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My speech is starting to bounce around the internet. Here are some of the places it’s landing:

  • An endorsement from someone active in the Transition movement:“I believe the topic of Community Rights is highly relevant to groups working on issues of community energy, community food production, and community resilience, as barrier after barrier is erected to prevent communities from having the power to direct their own course. It’s vitally important that people understand how to reclaim power, and to see how others have done it.”

    — Leslie MacKenzie